Lessons from Mario: How to create successful brand characters

Mario is finally heading to your iPhone, but what is it that made the Italian plumber stand the test of time?

Diarmid Harrison Murray is creative director for 3D at MPC Advertising, a virtual FX studio whose work has included creating Monty the Penguin, the star of the 2014 John Lewis Christmas campaign.

When Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto stepped on stage at Apple’s iPhone 7 event in San Francisco earlier this month, he made 80s kids’ dreams come true. When Super Mario comes to iPhones later this year, the lovable plumber will for the first time grace a platform outside of Nintendo’s own ecosystem.

What’s most interesting about the news for me, as creative lead for a VFX studio, is a reminder of Mario’s influence not just on pocket money but on a business’s bottom line – with Nintendo’s share price soaring following the announcement.

Mario, with his iconic moustache, overalls, and little red hat, has undoubtedly stood the test of time since making his debut as an 8-bit character in the Donkey Kong arcade games of the early 80s. But not every company has a swarm of super-fans clamoring for their next product.

Nonetheless, creating a character to spearhead your brand’s next campaign could go a long way to winning over apathetic consumers who are bombarded with ads.

Human characteristics

As humans, we're always looking to engage and connect with others, and that extends to animated characters. If you give people something they can identify with, it’s more likely they in turn will engage with your story and brand.

One of my favourite examples is the Creature Comfort ads for Heat Electric, done in classic claymation by the wonderful Aardman Animation team behind Wallace and Gromit.

But it’s not about creature realism at all – the magic sauce comes from projecting the right human character onto the right animal, and they get it right every time. It’s the perfect marriage, and therein lies the humour.

With Monty the Penguin for John Lewis, our references came from penguins’ natural behaviour in the wild, and we wanted to create something as true to real life as possiblem, but there were moments where we allowed a tiny movement of the eye to give a sense human emotions.

Often nature knows best but with the right cues, the audience will project the rest. It may sound insignificant, but those discreet moments are what draw people in.

Imperfections

At MPC, we create our characters by starting with an anatomically correct skeleton and adding muscles before skin or fur. It gives us an accurate representation of that creature, human or otherwise, and acts as a precursor to everything else.

But we also believe all characters should be fundamentally flawed. Mario is the anti-hero – short, plump, and always one step behind his nemesis. He’s less than graceful and is always finding himself in sticky situations.

Of course, brands want their characters to be practically perfect in every way; they’re paying for them, after all. But for engagement and longevity, should you ever want to reuse the character in a future campaign or indeed for it to become your brand mascot, perfection isn’t wise.

A great example is U.S. insurance brand Geico’s Gecko, which has a Cockney accent. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition and has become such a phenomenon that the brand name is barely mentioned in the latest ads – people immediately associate the funny British Gecko with Geico.

But he’s a little awkward and sometimes forgets his lines, and that lets us form such a stronger connection.

Simplicity

There’s often the temptation to do too much, but not every campaign needs a photorealistic creature or a fully rendered 3D world. Yes, Mario exists today in 3D and will make his mobile debut on the most powerful iPhone to date, but he was just as endearing in two dimensions.

Take the band Gorillaz, poster boys for how far you can run with a simple animated character. The animations were the face of the entire band, far more marketable than Damon Albarn and the real musicians they kept in their shadows.

And who could forget Flat Eric in the old Levi’s ads? Such a simple puppet still resonated and never failed to make us laugh.

Today, the typical ad campaign extends far beyond the TV screen but – cuddly souvenirs and product package aside – it’s still rare to see brand mascots successfully taking full advantage of other media platforms.

Much of that will be down to the complexities and cost associated with taking a detailed CGI character and placing it in new scenarios on Facebook or Twitter, but it’s something brands are increasingly demanding from their agencies – and something we’re embracing with the launch of our own Animated Character Engine (ACE).

Super Mario perfectly captures the essence of human emotion, but he’s a very simple creation and is far from perfect.

Brands want a character they can reuse again and again in campaigns and, while there’s certainly no quick fix or shortcuts to getting it right, follow Mario’s principles and you’ll be halfway there.

This story first appeared on campaignlive.com.

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